Science & The Bible: Natural Theology

Hello! Last week we focused on The Bible and The Enlightenment, where we learned about the Documentary Hypothesis vs. Mosaic authorship in the Pentateuch, and the challenging (especially that of Spinoza) of biblical authority by stating contradictions and reiterations in the bible. This week, we will be turning our scope to the natural world, viewing the “proofs of Design” through the arguments of William Paley.


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This week we will be reading William Paley’s Natural Theology, Proverbs 1-9 (RSV), the Wisdom of Solomon, and Ferngren’s Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction (pp.93-176). In Paley, you can focus your reading on chs 1-7, 12, and 21-27. Here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Compare Paley’s watchmaker analogy in chs 1-6 of Natural Theology to the accounts of Wisdom found in Wisdom of Solomon 6-9 and in Prov 8. What do they share in common? How are they different? Why might this be so?
  2. Describe Paley’s argument from design that culminates in ch 12. What evidence does it rest on? What is its significance?
  3. What is the importance of Paley’s discussion of “secondary causality” in chapter 23? Are there similar ideas to be found in Gen 1-3?
  4. Paley’s discussion of the goodness of the deity in ch 26 is crucial. On what evidentiary basis does he understand the creator to be good? How might Paley explain the natural phenomena discussed in the following YouTube videos?

Paley equates the fact of human existence to the discovery of a finely constructed watch in the wilderness. Compared to the finding of a rock, we must suppose that this watch had a Designer, that such a thing could not come to be through chance, especially when we observe its abilities to reproduce more watches with different systems calculated for different purposes. He says that birds, plants, humans – our offspring are never our own contrivance, no matter the level of rationality.

Paley points out that the contrivances of nature surpass all those of art – the eye is far more ingenious than the telescope, for example, because it is self-adjusting, and the materials are superiorly chosen. We experience the necessity of all our organs without the knowledge of how they operate.

In Proverbs 8 (RSV), the author writes the following:

“Does not wisdom call…The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…When he established the heavens, I was there…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of man.”

And in the Wisdom of Solomon:

“For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
[17] For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the
activity of the elements;
[18] the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes
of the seasons,
[19] the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
[20] the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts,
the powers of spirits and the reasonings of men,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
[21] I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
[22] for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.
For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
mobile, clear, unpolluted,
distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,
irresistible,
[23] beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
all-powerful, overseeing all,
and penetrating through all spirits
that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.”

Wisdom 7:16-23

In Paley’s argument from design in Chapter 12, he lists nine points of comparative anatomy that prove the complexity and suitability of each animal’s design (especially focusing on that of the bird) for its purpose, and therefore the need for a Designer.

  1. Covering. Animals have coats suitable for their climate, and change their coats seasonally. Birds have feathers, which are mechanical wonders for their strength and lightness. Only humans have been created naked – so that we have been created for all seasons.
  2. Mouth. Not merely chance was it that all our organs of sense are situated similarly, or that animals either have lips/gums/teeth, a beak, or a sucker – different designs used for different things (snatching, seizing, biting) for ultimately the same purpose.
  3. Gullet.
  4. Intestine.
  5. Bones. No matter how much we may exercise, we will never get the hollow bones of a bird. They have been designed this way for easier flight.
  6. Lungs.
  7. Oviparous.
  8. Instruments of motion. It’s logical to see the progression from legs to wings to fins, he says.
  9. Senses. They are all proportioned differently in deference to our need.

He concludes, that there are far too many marks of design to not have a Designer contriving them.

Second causality is a concept mentioned in chapter 26, and the idea is that intelligence is always contriving. Laws are never the cause, just like how a mechanism is separate from the power. Second causes are these mechanisms in nature – and the managing of these causes and properties requires intelligence. Therefore, we must conclude that there must be more in nature than what we see. If we don’t, and resolve all productions into unconscious energies, then that is atheism.

In Genesis, we see that the sun and the heavens were set in motion by God, and that dust was formed into man, receiving the “power” to operate their “mechanisms”.

Paley characterizes God with omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternity, self-existence, necessary existence, and spirituality. Ultimately, he believes in divine goodness – that the majority of contrived design is beneficial. The main proof of this is pleasure, added to animal sensation beyond what was necessary for survival and purpose. The young are designed to be happy with pleasure, endowed with an impatience of rest, while the old are contented with the absence of pain, delighting in quiet and repose. Each living thing enjoys success of its design, which is God’s care – insects show their joy by moving around more than what is necessary, aphids find it gratifying to suck plants more than they need to, and we as humans speak and walk without needing to.

Paley says that happiness is the rule, while misery (disease and want) is the exception. He says that things like venom and predator-prey relationships are not ultimately evil. Venom is for the defensive benefit of the animal – and the quantity they discharge is normally only for the use assigned to their faculty. The best point he brought up was that there is no such thing as immortality anyway. The chase also invents a system for motion and activity on both sides – possibly bringing more pleasure to the predator, without otherwise damaging the happiness of its prey.

Now, in the case of the killer fungi and the wasp who invades the butterfly larvae, we might as well ask why we have disease. Paley might answer with a few responses, the first being of the doctrine of imperfections, and secondly, that pain and disease teach vigilance and proves the value of life.

Finally, Paley reflects on the nature of chance, and that it’s possible that there is no such thing. For example, events that are not designed inevitably arise from the pursuit of designed events. Two people separately plan on heading in opposite directions, and naturally meet each other halfway. Therefore, there is no chance, but only the “appearance” of it due to our ignorance. The variations of seasons and appearance of disease are expected by irregular, which force us into a state of vigilance.

Paley views human life as a state of probation – not a punishment, but a blessing and a trial. Although we should view the material world as immaterial, oftentimes pleasure prevents us from doing so.


Questions? Feedback? Thoughts? Leave it all in the comments below! I would love to get a discussion going!

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